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From the Field

Too close for comfort?
by Verónica Villafañe

Inside the KVEA/KWHY duopoly! Veronica Villafane talks with News Director Al Corral and laid off KWHY Anchor/Reporter Ricardo Fernandez!

With FCC easing regulations and allowing duopolies, we're starting to see a change hit some newsrooms across the country. Although the purchase of Chris Craft by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Corp. has been high profile, another duopoly is already in effect in Los Angeles. Will they set the example?

It became official on June 1, 2001. Telemundo Network purchased KWHY-22. The next day, the new owners axed 50 people from the staff. KVEA employees were also affected, losing another 15. That was the first round of layoffs. Out in the field, the news spread quickly - "can you believe it?" "poor people!" "is that going to happen to us?" were some of the comments among reporters, photographers and producers at other stations.

"In a situation where there is a merger, there's always going to be a question of where can I achieve economies," explains Al Corral. Hired in June as news director at KVEA-52, he now oversees two news operations. The former KCET and KPIX news director admits he faces a great challenge. "The attitude used to be one news director can't run two newsrooms. But the reality is I'm here and it's happening."

For years, KWHY-22, was known as the "business channel," airing some Spanish-language programming in the afternoon. After a failed attempt at a newscast in 1994, KWHY-22 launched "Noticiero 22" on March 3, 1997. Many people working at the local Telemundo and Univision stations didn't think they would survive. But to their surprise, "Noticiero 22" gained popularity and ratings. So much so, they expanded to three daily newscasts and the station switched its format to Spanish only programming. How could it be that a small news staff, with minimum resources and no live shots was attracting a significant audience? At one point, they were even getting better ratings than the local Telemundo station, KVEA-52.

Talks of the purchase by Telemundo Network, owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media circulated for months at channel 22, prior to the sale. Employees were nervous, yet hopeful a merger would mean more opportunities for growth. "We anticipated the change happily, with a lot of positive attitude.

They told us we would have better studios, cameras, live trucks, equipment, more resources -- resources we never had before," recalls Ricardo Fernández, a KWHY anchor/reporter laid off on June 2. "They said the news department was going to stay intact, especially people who worked on air." That's why he says he was surprised when news director Fernando González called him in to his office shortly after he reported for work the day after Telemundo took over."He tells me right up front as a friend: 'in 10 minutes they're going to call you upstairs and tell you bye.' He told me 'don't feel bad, I'm gone too.' I was shocked beyond belief." Fernández says he knows it was a business decision, nothing personal, but after almost four years in the "Noticias 22" team, it was hard to let go.

"I just know that in the TV world you never have a safe job. Today you're here, tomorrow you're not. It's about the management. If you don't fit their profile, you're out. It took me a month to get over it. Actually, I'm still getting over it, although I'm moving on to another job." For those who remained, it was difficult to deal with the loss of so many colleagues and with the uncertainty of their future. News director Corral says he is aware of their fears. "All you can do is be direct and honest... I had a lot of meetings with people at 22 and 52, to acknowledge uncertain times."

On Monday, August 20 all channel 22 news employees were moved to the KVEA-52 newsroom in Glendale. They now share quarters with the "Noticiero 52" news staff. Channel 52 and 22 reporters, producers and writers are now working side by side, in an attempt by management to integrate all their employees. But despite efforts by Telemundo to welcome the KWHY workers into their new home - they held a welcome barbecue their first day in the KVEA building and meetings with the combined news staff - many 22 employees don't feel comfortable.

A previously tight-knit group is spread over a foreign newsroom. "It just isn't the same, we feel like we're in someone else's home," pointed out one employee. "Should I bring my pictures?" wondered another, about placing the faces of their loved ones at their new desks. Life has also changed for the KVEA staff. In preparation for the merger, producers, writers and anchors were crammed into the conference room for several weeks, having to share desks, phones and computers as the station underwent a major reconstruction of their facilities.

Now, their newsroom is a lot busier and louder, with 110 people aboard. Production schedules had to be adjusted to accommodate six newscasts in seven hours. 52 staffers also have a lot to assimilate.
"People shouldn't have expectations that everyone's going to be their new best friend right away," states Corral. "There's only so much you can do. At this point, I don't sense any divisions." Although Corral says he doesn't foresee any more layoffs, some employees fear that may be the case, as both news teams continue the consolidation process and adjust to the new challenge of producing a total of 7 newscasts at 6:00am,11:30 am, 4:30 pm, 6:00 pm, 7:00 pm, 10:00 pm and 11:00 pm.

"Al Filo de la Noticia," a half-hour, high impact news video show, rounds up their local daily live programming. There's only 2 newscasts on weekends - at 6:00 and 11:00 pm on channel 52, but they also produce two live sports shows. The sets for all those shows are in one studio, with some production crews working on back to back newscasts airing on two different stations. Is it going to work out? "It's hard to say. We're looking at things day to day," says Corral. Well, so far, they've pulled it off. People watching at home can't tell the difference. Only those who work there are aware of the behind-the-scenes changes.

"Life goes on," says ex-KWHY employee Fernández. "I wish my friends (22 staffers) the best of luck." The 52 and 22 news director says there will be further expansion down the road and people should stay tuned as they will be making surprise announcements and talent additions that will rattle the market and give some stiff competition to rival KMEX-34.

Now that he's managing the first working duopoly in Los Angeles, what does he think is going to happen with the Fox-Chris Craft merger? "It's hard to say. Our experience here is unique. The whole Fox-13 thing is a different animal. The only thing I can say is we're going to see more duopolies.. This strategy is here to stay."

About the Author
Verónica Villafañe is an Emmy award-winning television writer and reporter, with more than 12 years of research and reporting experience. She is a journalism graduate from the University of the Saviour, in Argentina. She can be reached by e-mail